Why the Three Kings won’t visit Uruguay this year

Catholic Church wants the highly secular nation to recognize religious origin of January 6 holiday

Officially, children in Uruguay have not had a visit from the Three Kings since 1919, when the country adopted one of the world’s only secular calendars after its State-Church separation two years earlier. Yet on this January 6, thousands of presents will fill people’s homes and workers will enjoy a day off.

A Three Kings parade in Seville, Spain.
A Three Kings parade in Seville, Spain.AFP
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Uruguay no cree en los Reyes Magos

Instead of being known as Día de Reyes (or Three Kings’ Day) as it is in most Spanish-speaking countries, Uruguayans will be officially celebrating the Día del Niño (Day of the Child).

The religious feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 6 by the Western Catholic Church, will end a special season for the country’s Roman Catholic community, which represents around 41% of the population – one of the lowest figures in the region.

Spurred on by church authorities, the community is attempting to rekindle the religious origin of this feast in Latin America’s most secularized nation, where 38% of the population says it does not practice any religion.

Nothing is stopping the various faiths from engaging in proselytizing activities or seeking to gain new members

Víctor Rodríguez Otheguy, Uruguay Association of Free Thinkers

Headed by Cardinal Daniel Sturla, who was appointed by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church has embarked on a “new evangelization” of Uruguay aimed at attracting part of that 38% of non-confessional citizens, many of whom say they believe in God.

And one of the main hurdles is the country’s calendar, which was designed in 1919 by a liberal and church-opposing elite who, after winning a major battle in parliament, managed what not even the French or Soviet revolutionaries had achieved: removing religion from the calendar.

However, Catholic feasts were maintained, albeit under different names. When other parts of the world celebrate Christmas, Uruguayans have Family Day. Easter Week is known as Tourism Week, and the feast of the Immaculate Conception, held on December 8, is Beach Day in Uruguay.

The Rambla seaside promenade in Montevideo.
The Rambla seaside promenade in Montevideo.Jacinta R. Trobo

Things have been this way for nearly 100 years, but the Roman Catholic Church now wants Uruguayans to rediscover the real origin of those national holidays.

And so religious leaders this year asked the faithful to place images of the Nativity on their balconies, churches were told to remain open at least four hours a day, and prayer groups were organized. Meanwhile, Cardinal Sturla denounced the imposition of the secular state model in a series of interviews and sermons.

“Anything to do with Catholicism triggers a response that is surprisingly acrimonious, and which has nothing to do with secularism, but rather with the secularizing drive of 100 years ago,” the cardinal has said.

Víctor Rodríguez Otheguy of Uruguay’s Association of Free Thinkers, feels that this call for a new evangelization is part of a global trend initiated by the new Pope in Rome.

The liberal elite managed what not even the French or Soviet revolutionaries had achieved

“Nothing is stopping the various faiths from engaging in proselytizing activities or seeking to gain new members; that is protected by the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom,” he notes.

But Otheguy says that what the Catholic Church aims to do is to reintroduce religion education into the public education system.

No to Mary statue

In 2016, Sturla failed in his attempt to erect a statue of the Virgin Mary on Montevideo’s Rambla, a 22-kilometer seaside promenade and the capital’s main landmark.

The promenade has no Catholic symbols, although it does contain a statue of Yemoja, a water goddess from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, along with another of Chinese philosopher Confucius.

But Uruguay’s secularists, both from the right and from the left, refused to budge, and Catholics were left without a statue of Mary.

And so the Three Wise Men continue to bypass Uruguay, although the presents keep showing up every January 6.

English version by Susana Urra.

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